African cichlids tank no WC

IanMatrix
  • #1
Hi, I decided to register here after reading a thread about an african cichlids tank that had no WC for 6 months.

I am in the aquarium hobby for 15ish years. Got 22 tanks back in the 2000s and used to breed africans cichlids for a couple of fish stores.

I moved 7 years ago and decided to sell everything but 1 tank to a fish store owner. I kept a 125gal with a colony of very young Aulonaucara Lwanda (they were barely 1in), about 20 of them as well as some of my favorite fish from lake Tanganyika: 5 featherfins ventralis.

For the first 2 years, I kept doing my regular maintenance, nothing fancy, about 30% WC per month, regular Purigen replacement or regeneration etc… I always used Pothos in my tanks, at least 5in of sand (crushed corals mixed with aragonite and TONS of rocks (lots of them are old live rocks from my reef tank so they keep my Ph up.).

I started spacing out my maintenance, from 30% once a month to every other month, and so on until I stopped completely. It was a LONG process, but now, it’s been 3 years that this tank is running with the same water (well, technically no since I top off regularly).

I don’t recommend doing that unless you have a very well established old tank with excellent consistency and stable parameters but here are the reasons why I am able to maintain it clear, clean and perfectly stable:

- a huge sand bed (5 to 6’), it was very long to get to that amount, I started with 2in and very slowly added a handful of aragonite once in a while.
- pothos (lots of) on top of the tank: roots are all over and under the lid, in the water, under some rocks…, it is simply crazy how long the roots are. Pothos are probably 4y old and look amazing!
- trumpet snails: it will sound scary but I probably have something like 200 of them. They only show up at night, never during the day.
- 2 wave makers on each side of the tank to maintain a strong flow and a perpetual surface agitation.
- I put a water lettuce from my outdoor pond 2 years ago: I have now tons of them that I have to toss every month such they reproduce fast. Water lettuces stay on the surface and have very thick and long under water roots.
- 2 seachem tidal 110 filters that I completely clean once every 6 months. It takes me z good hour. I use Seachem Stability to replenish the BB after the filters cleaning.
- these 2 filters are loaded with Matrix (2 liters per filter), nothing else. I stopped using Purigen a while ago. I rince the biomedia with tank water when I clean the filters.
- i feed my fish 3 times a week.
- I top off with tap water (very hard water here) using Seachem Safe to kill any kind of chlorine.
I rarely test the water but here is my constant reading each time I do:
- ammonia 0
- nitrite 0
- nitrate 25
- ph is stable at 8.2
- Kh 9
- Temp is stable at 82 (i have 2 eheim heathers to control the temp, got too many bad experiences in the past)

just wanted to share my experience, again, I don’t recommend doing this unless you are absolutely aware of the consequences it can have if it turns bad. But yes, it is perfectly possible to have an african cichlids tank with almost 0 maintenance and a crystal clear water, happy fish and a well balanced water column.
 
Leeman75
  • #2
Welcome to Fishlore! I know that no WC tanks is a very divisive topic, but I don't claim to have any special experience or insight for or against. I think it's fascinating nonetheless!

Would love to see a picture of the tank, especially to se the pothos!
 
ruud
  • #3
pictures are always appreciated
 
MacZ
  • #4
just wanted to share my experience, again, I don’t recommend doing this unless you are absolutely aware of the consequences it can have if it turns bad.
Thank you for this disclaimer!

It is unbelievable how often people show up here, say they don't do waterchanges for ages but never explain why they can do so. Frankly, many don't even know how they do it and/or refuse to explain their setup. Usually when asked for their water parameters you get a "I don't measure them." And IF you get them, they are off the charts and proof of a system close to collapse. Your system is one of the few that immediately tick all the necessary measures. Thanks again and congrats to that system working.

Also, when I still kept (and bred) Rift Lake cichlids I would never had thought of mixing the lakes, but reading this now... Aulonocara and Ophthalmotilapia would indeed work together in a sizable tank. Thanks for that as well.

Oh, and I concur with ruud: Pictures please. :)
 
IanMatrix
  • Thread Starter
  • #5
Thank you all!
I will take pictures today once the lights turn on. Lights are on a timer, as I used to be a reef tank addict, the main center light is from my reef setup. There’s 6 variations of intensity/brightness/color that replicate the sun/moon but my tank is almost pitch black from 11pm to 7am tho. At 7:01am, a purple/blue light is slowly rising. The tank is full lit at 2pm, but all of the lights are set to 40% power.
Timers are almost essential for consistency, fish are used to the schedule and it helps a lot!

As far as mixing Tang and Malawi species, I must admit that I first did that because I just didn’t want to add more tanks. I would have re-homed the Lwandas and kept the Ventralis but they were still babies so I decided to wait and see. Turned out great, the only thing is that the Ventralis don’t seem to be able to breed. By experience, they need a large part of the tank with no rocks, just sand, so the male can dig his giant crater and do his things. Also, the 2 dominant Lwandas are extremely territorial and claimed each side of the tank for themselves. But the dominant Ventralis is stunning, constantly trying to mate the 3 females. I am hoping that they will eventually make it but it’s not my goal anymore, I just don’t want to strip any female or even net a fish out.

Some aggression will happen from time to time amongst the Lwanda males, but never between both species. Lwandas can be nasty, a sub-dominant male lost his eye last year, but that’s about it, I guess they make their own rule. Remove a bully and another one will take over.

Another thing I forgot to mention: I never added any fish in 3 years. I have some small Lwandas that are born in the tank, I’d have never thought they would survive but here again, rocks and caves helped and some of the juvies made it and got bigger enough to swim around.

Last thing and I really believe that it’s 50% of the reason I am able to keep this tank healthy: the beneficial bacteria. I don’t use any chemicals whatsoever but only Seachem Stability which I am not even afraid to overdose after the filters cleaning. It’s just psychological I think, even if I technically don’t lose any BB when rinsing the Matrix, I always feel like I do. With so many rocks and substrate, the BB has tons of wet surfaces to hold on to, and together with a good water flow, that’s in my opinion the very first success factor.

photos will come today :)
 
Bwood22
  • #6
Hey and welcome!

Can't wait to see your pictures.

I'm curious....so you have a mix of Lwanda males & females? What's your ratio? Are they breeding? Do you have issues with them messing with the substrate and claiming territories?
That's a pretty thick substrate so im wondering how much of your nitrate control is happening deep in the substrate vs the plants.
And aside from from the occasional top off, what type of work do you have to do in the tank routinely?
 
FishDin
  • #7
Very cool!

I always thought that pothos wouldn't grow in my pH 8.2 African tank because of the pH, but I guess not.
 
Frank the Fish guy
  • #8
Other folks have had similar experiences and you may find this interesting: 180 Gallon Tank - 0 Nitrates Is So Easy, Why Does No One Do It? | Advanced Freshwater Aquarium Topics Forum | 382099

A complete ecosystem that is self sustaining is the holy grail man! You are the fish master!! Nicely done!!!

The best part is that it takes the stress and hassle out and lets you just enjoy the tank and activities that go on there!

And of course if you want to change some water you can. Nature has rain.

Your GH must be building up and will eventually get very high. But if the plants are removing it at the same rate, then maybe not.

The science says that there are plenty of bacteria that can also consume nitrate. And contrary to some persistent myths, these bacteria do not have to be anaerobic. They take a long time to establish and only come for fish keepers like you!
 
IanMatrix
  • Thread Starter
  • #9

9DAE16FE-A4F6-4DC9-96C4-A3FEFB409094.jpeg
Here are some pictures, fish are getting nuts each time I am near the tank cause they think I will feed’em lol.

Lwandas: Ratio is 10 females for 6 males but only 2 males are dominant. There’s 2 other sub-dominants that get beaten up once in a while when they go too far. The 2 remaining males almost look like females. They breed constantly, some babies survive, just a few sometimes but they are mostly being eaten otherwise.

Ventralis: 2 males and 3 females, I could use more females but so far so good, little to no aggression between them. No breeding so far as far as I know. The dominant male tends to dig a lot and mess with the sand, that’s why I don’t think I could keep plants in there, just floating plants at the surface.
Hey and welcome!

Can't wait to see your pictures.

I'm curious....so you have a mix of Lwanda males & females? What's your ratio? Are they breeding? Do you have issues with them messing with the substrate and claiming territories?
That's a pretty thick substrate so im wondering how much of your nitrate control is happening deep in the substrate vs the plants.
And aside from from the occasional top off, what type of work do you have to do in the tank routinely?
The thing with the substrate is that it’s constantly being moved by the snails. They hide under the sand and got out at night. I am not an expert in water chemistry but I believe that it’s beneficial.

i really don’t do anything beside trimming off the pothos every month, removing the extra new water lettuces and clean the tidal every 6 months or so. And like I said, I top off once a week and… I spend hours staring at my fish!

Food: 3 times a week, Northfin cichlids pellets and spirulina flakes.
 

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ruud
  • #10
Nitrogen compounds are assimilated by fungi, bacteria, mold in the substrate. If you have a deep substrate, especially with snails aerating it, there is a lot of nitrogen assimilating biomass.

Frank(ly), I think it is safe to say that anaerobic bacteria are actually never responsible for denitrification in an aquarium. At least, when it comes down to substrates.

But I likely continue to regurgitate on this forum that it is otherwise, depending on the audience.
 
Frank the Fish guy
  • #11
It is likely that the fast growing plants ('lots of pothos') used in this tank are helping to pull nitrates out at a rate faster than the tank makes new nitrates. It is in balance due to the art of the fishkeeper!
 
MacZ
  • #12
It is likely that the fast growing plants ('lots of pothos') used in this tank are helping to pull nitrates out at a rate faster than the tank makes new nitrates.
Pretty sure that's the case, as I do that too, without a deep sand bed.
 
Leeman75
  • #13
Very cool! Thank you for sharing the pics! I've wanted to get Pothos established with my SA Cichlids, but I've always been concerned they would get eaten and not grow.
 
MacZ
  • #14
Very cool! Thank you for sharing the pics! I've wanted to get Pothos established with my SA Cichlids, but I've always been concerned they would get eaten and not grow.
Unless you have Heros or Uaru you should be fine. Also, Pothos has to stay above the surface. Only let the roots grow into the water.

South American tank, with cichlids. Blackwater even. 4 individual Pothos plants. And the stuff grows so much, all other plants die off when I forget to dose fertilizers.

photo_2022-07-10_18-15-02.jpg
photo_2022-06-15_10-14-37.jpg
IMG_20220620_204452.jpg
 
IanMatrix
  • Thread Starter
  • #15
Very cool! Thank you for sharing the pics! I've wanted to get Pothos established with my SA Cichlids, but I've always been concerned they would get eaten and not grow.
I never had a fish munching on pothos roots. Some of the leaves even grow in water directly and they don’t touch these either. Pothos are very slow at first and extremely fast after a few months. I don’t recommend putting them next to the filter output tho, the roots are growing everywhere and can block the water from getting out.
 
Leeman75
  • #16
I never had a fish munching on pothos roots. Some of the leaves even grow in water directly and they don’t touch these either. Pothos are very slow at first and extremely fast after a few months. I don’t recommend putting them next to the filter intake tho, the toots are growing everywhere and can block the water from getting in.
Good pro tip! I've been contemplating the Pothos for some time now...may have to get out today!

Sorry to derail your post, but it inspired me (alibi with MacZ's pics), so thank you!!
 
IanMatrix
  • Thread Starter
  • #17
Here is a summary of what's important IMO to get a "partial" eco-system with African cichlids and no underground-roots plants, no CO2 and no magic commercial chemical. It is based on my experience and it's by no means a scientific statement:

1) At least 3 or 4 inches of substrate, added gradually over the months/years. The more the better IMO.

2) Pothos and/or other kinds of nitrate eater plants on the top of the tank or floating plants like water lettuce (Water Lillies are not very efficient enough and need to root in the substrate)

3) a perfectly balanced tank is showing no ammonia/nitrite/nitrate regularly.

4) Lots of rocks, old reef life rocks, and dead corals to increase the wet surface for the BB to grow on.

5) Stable water temperature: IME, the warmer, the faster the BB will thrive, but I can be wrong. Mine is constant at 81/82.

6) Stable pH: for African cichlids, a stable pH of 8ish. But DO NOT go crazy over pH, I believe that the fish are adaptable and will take what you give them as long as it's not extreme. I had Frontosas for years thriving with a pH of 7+. The key is again consistency and going slow with changes. If your tap water is very alkaline, slowly decreased the amount of buffer over time to match your tap water pH. Again, I can be wrong to some experts, but it has always been working for me.

7) pH again: aragonite, crushed coral, holey stones, and limestone will increase and keep the pH stable.

8) Timers: put your lights on a timer! I think this is one of the most important things, it's once again a consistency factor and it is so crucial. 5 to 8 hours of light per day are enough, but here again, go slow at first and gently increase the amount of light over several months.

9) Bio-media: THE key in my opinion. You don't need carbon, Purigen (it's nice tho at first), or Chemi pure blue. All you need is some solid bio-media like Seachem Matrix or even some lava rocks in your filter. They don't need to be replaced and it's way more efficient long term. A mechanical sponge will help before your water hit the bio media in the filter. Carbon is a BIG mistake IMO: you need to replace it, and depending on the amount you put in your filter, you will toss a TON of beneficial bacteria when replacing it.

10) Beneficial Bacteria: It's very cheap and SO efficient to poor a bottle of Seachem Stability each time you clean your filter/rinse your media. It costs me 10 bucks every 6 months and it's worth it.

11) Number of fish VS size of the tank: the bigger the tank, the easier it's going to be when it comes to stability in my opinion. I have 18 medium size fish in 125gal. (fish don't grow over 6 inches)

12) Food: don't feed your fish every day. They really don't need to be fed every single day. 3 times a week is enough.

13) Water flow: I am a firm believer that good water circulation and a nice constant surface agitation are essential, it brings oxygen to the water and the fish and I am pretty sure the fish love that. I have 2 wavemakers directed to the water surface, they work 24/7.

14) Get a couple of snails, they will reproduce fast depending on the number of waste they can get (for example, trumpet snails). While many people consider them "pests", I would have never gone that far with my tank without them. They vacuum the substrate for you and contrary to the popular belief, you don't see them that often, except if you turn your lights on in the middle of the night, then you might have a heart attack. If you want the snails to go away, feed your fish less and they will magically vanish!

15) Test the water on a regular basis without being too crazy about it, don't chase pH. Having a few Nitrates is actually ok, it's basically food for plants IMO. Ammonia and Nitrite will most likely remain at 0 in a well-established tank anyway. Too much nitrate would mean too much feeding, not enough wet surface for the bacteria to grow, or not enough plants.

16) and finally the last one: enjoy the 0 maintenance as much as you can :)
 
Frank the Fish guy
  • #18
Your tank speaks for itself. Thanks for sharing your methods. We are all listening.
 
Leeman75
  • #19
Here is a summary of what's important IMO to get a "partial" eco-system with African cichlids and no underground-roots plants, no CO2 and no magic commercial chemical. It is based on my experience and it's by no means a scientific statement:

1) At least 3 or 4 inches of substrate, added gradually over the months/years. The more the better IMO.

2) Pothos and/or other kinds of nitrate eater plants on the top of the tank or floating plants like water lettuce (Water Lillies are not very efficient enough and need to root in the substrate)

3) a perfectly balanced tank is showing no ammonia/nitrite/nitrate regularly.

4) Lots of rocks, old reef life rocks, and dead corals to increase the wet surface for the BB to grow on.

5) Stable water temperature: IME, the warmer, the faster the BB will thrive, but I can be wrong. Mine is constant at 81/82.

6) Stable pH: for African cichlids, a stable pH of 8ish. But DO NOT go crazy over pH, I believe that the fish are adaptable and will take what you give them as long as it's not extreme. I had Frontosas for years thriving with a pH of 7+. The key is again consistency and going slow with changes. If your tap water is very alkaline, slowly decreased the amount of buffer over time to match your tap water pH. Again, I can be wrong to some experts, but it has always been working for me.

7) pH again: aragonite, crushed coral, holey stones, and limestone will increase and keep the pH stable.

8) Timers: put your lights on a timer! I think this is one of the most important things, it's once again a consistency factor and it is so crucial. 5 to 8 hours of light per day are enough, but here again, go slow at first and gently increase the amount of light over several months.

9) Bio-media: THE key in my opinion. You don't need carbon, Purigen (it's nice tho at first), or Chemi pure blue. All you need is some solid bio-media like Seachem Matrix or even some lava rocks in your filter. They don't need to be replaced and it's way more efficient long term. A mechanical sponge will help before your water hit the bio media in the filter. Carbon is a BIG mistake IMO: you need to replace it, and depending on the amount you put in your filter, you will toss a TON of beneficial bacteria when replacing it.

10) Beneficial Bacteria: It's very cheap and SO efficient to poor a bottle of Seachem Stability each time you clean your filter/rinse your media. It costs me 10 bucks every 6 months and it's worth it.

11) Number of fish VS size of the tank: the bigger the tank, the easier it's going to be when it comes to stability in my opinion. I have 18 medium size fish in 125gal. (fish don't grow over 6 inches)

12) Food: don't feed your fish every day. They really don't need to be fed every single day. 3 times a week is enough.

13) Water flow: I am a firm believer that good water circulation and a nice constant surface agitation are essential, it brings oxygen to the water and the fish and I am pretty sure the fish love that. I have 2 wavemakers directed to the water surface, they work 24/7.

14) Get a couple of snails, they will reproduce fast depending on the number of waste they can get (for example, trumpet snails). While many people consider them "pests", I would have never gone that far with my tank without them. They vacuum the substrate for you and contrary to the popular belief, you don't see them that often, except if you turn your lights on in the middle of the night, then you might have a heart attack. If you want the snails to go away, feed your fish less and they will magically vanish!

15) Test the water on a regular basis without being too crazy about it, don't chase pH. Having a few Nitrates is actually ok, it's basically food for plants IMO. Ammonia and Nitrite will most likely remain at 0 in a well-established tank anyway. Too much nitrate would mean too much feeding, not enough wet surface for the bacteria to grow, or not enough plants.

16) and finally the last one: enjoy the 0 maintenance as much as you can :)
This was a really interesting a tun to learn post. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge!
 
MacZ
  • #21
Well thought through system, glad it works.

I have some additions, for people trying to replicate this, because there are some specifics here that are important to know, because this way you can't keep any kind of fish. It's specifically linked to hardwater species and plantless (meaning underwater) tanks.

with African cichlids and no underground-roots plants
Very important. Rift Lake cichlids need specific alkaline water parameters (see below) and no aquatic plants means no need to keep nitrates.
2) Pothos and/or other kinds of nitrate eater plants on the top of the tank or floating plants like water lettuce (Water Lillies are not very efficient enough and need to root in the substrate)
Monstera are a tipp as well. Emersed plants with access to atmospheric CO2 draw nutrients from water like like a vacuum cleaner.
3) a perfectly balanced tank is showing no ammonia/nitrite/nitrate regularly.
Again, if the tank isn't planted this makes sense. Lush green underwater scenery will not be possible.
6) Stable pH
7) pH again
10) Beneficial Bacteria: It's very cheap and SO efficient to poor a bottle of Seachem Stability each time you clean your filter/rinse your media. It costs me 10 bucks every 6 months and it's worth it.
Very much entwined with the alkaline conditions. The BB sold in bottles have an optimal pH range of 7.2 to 8.2. In any setup aiming for lower pH they are useless. So it's not stability as such, it's about keeping pH above a certain level.

In a well established softwater tank with a stable pH of 6 (yes, stability below neutral is possible) this all wouldn't be achievable.

So, yes, this system works, but only under said circumstances.
 

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